Computers are everywhere. Literally. We carry them around in our pockets and on our wrists, not to mention the larger ones in our backpacks. We have them in our cars, our TV sets, and our living rooms, in the form of gaming consoles and smart TVs.
We use them at our workplace to carry out our daily tasks, and at home, to store pictures of the royal vegas caribbean casino cruise we were on last year, to play our music collection, to watch movies, browse the web and linger on social media. We use them for a limited time only. And even at those times we mostly use only a fraction of the processing power hidden inside them.
While proper statistics about the idle time of computers are not available – this might change a lot when the Internet of Things becomes mainstream – we can all measure for how long we use our devices at their peak performance. We use our gaming consoles to run games over 6 hours a week (on average, of course), and in the rest of the time it lies unused. The same goes for PCs, especially those used at home for multiple purposes. Even at times when we work, play or consume media (social or otherwise), the computer seldom ever needs its complete processing power. Most of it goes to waste on trivial jobs that hardly even make our processors sweat.
Mobile computers – smartphones, tablets and laptops – are different from gaming consoles and desktop computers, because they rely on batteries to assure their functioning. More work for the processor means more power consumed and less battery life left for later. These computers usually spend their idle times in “power saving” mode, so their users don’t have to run around looking for a power outlet every few hours of the day.
There have been initiatives to put our computers’ idle times to good use. The earliest I’ve met was SETI@Home, initiated by the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute. The organization collects huge amounts of data each year, and their computers analyze said data non stop. But to be able to do so faster, they asked for the help of computer users worldwide. They provided a program that would start only when the computer is not used otherwise, and analyze some of the collected data in the background.
SETI@Home is currently part of BOINC (acronym for Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing), which allows users to use their computers’ idle times to help with various types of research. The projects include studying global warming, curing diseases and searching for pulsars in outer space.